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Sensible Coal Revival

April 17, 2014

The EPA has essentially killed coal-fired power plants by ruling that coal-fired power plants must emit less than 1,100 pounds of CO2 per MWh.

But will this ruling stand?

Common sense would say that the rule must be revoked.

Revoking the rule is unlikely while this administration is in power. It is committed to cutting CO2 emissions regardless of whether the science supports anthropogenic global warming from CO2.

As it becomes increasingly clear that renewables, such as wind and solar, cannot supply the electricity needs of the United States, there will be a need for large, base load power plants.

This will become especially clear as more nuclear power plants are closed. See Nuclear Demise in the United States.

While natural gas combined cycle (NGCC) power plants can provide base load power, pipeline constraints, and concerns for relying on an inordinate amount of power generation from a single technology, coupled with growth in electricity demand, will result in a revival of coal-fired power plants.

Pipelines in several areas were not capable of supplying sufficient natural gas to power plants this past winter, so there is a practical limit as to how many new NGCC power plants can be built.

Building new coal-fired power plants makes sense for three additional reasons:

  • Coal is cheap and abundant, and produces electricity at a cost that can be competitive with natural gas.
  • New, ultra-supercritical coal-fired power plants that operate at very high temperatures and pressures are approximately 40% more efficient than coal-fired power plants built in the past. The improved efficiency also results in far fewer emissions.
  • Ultra-supercritical coal-fired power plants cost less than half as much per KW as do nuclear power plants.
John W. Turk, ultra-supercritical power plant. Photo courtesy of SWEPCO.

John W. Turk, ultra-supercritical power plant. Photo courtesy of SWEPCO.

The John W. Turk ultra-supercritical power plant in Arkansas is the only such plant built in the United States. China is reportedly building around 20 of these ultra-supercritical coal-fired power plants.

Traditional coal-fired power plants had a thermal efficiency of around 32% HHV, while new ultra-supercritical coal-fired power plants have a thermal efficiency of around 45% HHV. This advance in technology has been brought about by improvements in metallurgy.

Improvements in efficiency also translate into corresponding reductions in NOx, SOx, Hg, and other pollutants. With modern pollution control equipment, these plants deserve the sobriquet of clean-coal.

If half the nuclear power plants being shuttered this century in the United States are replaced with NGCC power plants, it will still require approximately 35 new ultra-supercritical coal-fired power plants to be built between 2035 and 2100, or approximately one new coal-fired power plant being built every two years.

While this is an approximation, it’s close enough to establish what’s likely to happen with the closure of nuclear power plants.

It’s always risky forecasting the future, but the evidence, i.e., closure of nuclear power plants; growth in electricity demand; and practical limits of how many NGCC power plants can be built, and that wind and solar are too anemic to meet required output, all support such a forecast.

There’s no question that NGCC power plants are cleaner, but there are good reasons to build ultra-supercritical coal-fired power plants.


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